By Paul Love
“Red”, by award-winning American playwright and screenwriter John Logan, is a fictional account of a turning point in the career of real-life abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, which earned six Tony Awards after a relatively short stint on Broadway. Creative FORCE and Northumberland Players are currently staging a production of “Red” at the Firehall Theatre in Cobourg.
The play opens with Rothko (Tim Russell) posturing and blustering as he sizes up his new assistant, Ken (Erastus Burley). “What do you see?” Rothko asks Ken — the perfect opening line to a play that is all about the importance of perception in the creation, development, and appreciation of art. Mr. Burley plays Ken with an anxious discomfort that resonates powerfully with the audience. We feel his anxiety as he struggles to earn the respect of this famed artist who he clearly admires. Mr. Russell commands the stage effortlessly, appropriately making Rothko the god-like master of his own studio.
Rothko was creating a series of murals that would be displayed in New York’s Four Seasons Hotel, which was being built at the time. As the work develops, so does the working relationship between these two characters. A change is seen more so in Ken, who becomes increasingly comfortable in Rothko’s studio, and with Rothko himself. Kudos to Mr. Burley for making this change in Ken subtle and nuanced. Mr. Russell expertly maintains Rothko’s gruff, cool exterior, while showing Rothko’s progression mainly through more aggressive behaviour and fits of anger. The culmination of their relationship can be witnessed in a scene where the two work together to prime a canvas, in a gorgeous, mesmerizing moment that is almost dance-like. As the play progresses, Rothko and Ken share in some incredible conversations and arguments about light, colour, the role of the audience, and the purpose of art itself, that will cause at least minor eruptions in the minds of the audience members, thanks to Logan’s beautifully written script.
Mr. Burley also designed the set, which involved cleverly stripping the performance space down to its bare bones, and bringing it to dirty, gritty life with old paint-splattered cupboards, industrial work benches, and beat-up paint paraphernalia. Aside from taking on the role of Rothko, Tim Russell also created a great lighting design, which was effective at evoking mood throughout.
The real centrepiece of this production is the performances. Russell and Burley (who, incidentally, were also the uncredited co-directors of the production) play off each other exquisitely, and perform real physical tasks such as framing a canvas and mixing paint (and eating Chinese food!) with such ease, you start to forget that you’re watching two actors performing a scripted play. Russell portrays Rothko with the self-assuredness that this character requires, and that only a truly seasoned actor could pull off. His performance is, in a word, remarkable. Burley expertly covers a wide range of emotion with his performance as Ken (who, notably, is a character that Logan created, and not based on a real-life assistant), always with boundless energy and intensity, but never going too far. There is one scene in particular where Ken recounts a dark moment from his past where Mr. Burley creates a moment that is poignant and heart wrenching.
Remaining performances are January 10th, 11th, and 12th at 8 pm, at the Firehall Theatre, 213 Second St., Cobourg. Tickets are available at the box office or by visiting the website. The show is approximately 85 minutes with no intermission.